MOLINE, Ill. – With the Kelly Cup Playoffs completed and the dust settled after the Quad City Mallards’ terminal season as we know it, it’s time we look back at the past.
First, a review of what the Mallards could have done differently to have a winning season.
The short answer is nothing; the long answer is absolutely nothing. A time machine would be useful for going back to Vegas to prevent the string of injuries that led to five different goaltenders appearing for the newest NHL team. Because of the Mallards’ affiliation with the Vegas Golden Knights, C.J. Motte was first on the list of goaltenders to call up from the ECHL to the AHL when both Oscar Dansk and Max Lagace were injured. Both of the latter goalies had been with the Chicago Wolves to start the season, but that quickly changed. Motte was called up to Chicago a week after the Mallards’ season began, and remained there for six weeks. In that time, the Mallards signed Alex Sakellaropoulos and then Branden Komm to help out Ivan Kulbakov in net.
For a short time the Mallards carried three goalies after Motte’s return, but on December 6, the Mallards traded Komm to the Manchester Monarchs in return for financial considerations. That sounded fine because both Motte and Kulbakov were with the Mallards – until the next day when Kulbakov was called up to the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters for six weeks. Eric Hartzell was signed to fill the void left in the Mallards’ goalie tandem, but he didn’t do much for the team for a while. Instead, head coach Phil Axtell decided to have Hartzell ride the pine and only use him after pulling Motte and then starting a few games.
Without detailing every single transaction involving Mallards goalies because of the sheer number of them, the Mallards also saw Jake Paterson and Matt O’Connor in net before the season was through. There were several PTOs signed by Motte throughout the season, and Kulbakov was recalled and reassigned several times as well. The Mallards very rarely had the same goalie duo for very long, and the lack of consistency was an issue.
A strong team is built from the net out. A team needs a solid goalie who’s able to bail out the defense every once in a while. The Mallards had that in Motte and Kulbakov, and in no small extent Komm when he played. Hartzell was a victim of circumstance. Coming over from Slovakia and then not seeing action for weeks as Hartzell did doesn’t bode well for goalies, as they – and any other athlete – need game action as well as practice.
The most significant problem for the Mallards was the lack of goaltender stability, but there were smaller problems exacerbated by the goalie corps.
The lack of stability in net exposed the weakness on both ends of the ice. Herb Brooks said the legs feed the wolf, and the Mallards didn’t always show the best legs. Often they would appear winded in the second period and deteriorate even more in the final frame, and one of the most common clichés in hockey is “play the full 60 minutes”. If a team doesn’t play the full 60 minutes, it’s extremely unlikely for them to win the game – which the Mallards didn’t do very often.
The Illinois-based team finished with a record of 25-42-4-1, which gave them a win percentage of 38.2%. Quad-City finished at the bottom of the Central Division (and the league) with 55 points; the Kansas City Mavericks, who was the next closest team in the division standings-wise, finished with 74 points.
After last season’s comeback in the standings that saw the team earn 40 wins by the time the season was over, the complete 180 in on-ice results was a shock to spectators. On paper, the team looked good; it was a bit of a reverse-Cinderella story. The Vegas Golden Knights, the one-year NHL affiliate of the Mallards, was a team that no one thought would do as well as they did. The Mallards were a team that no one thought would do as poorly as they did.
In some ways, the writing was on the wall for the March 13 announcement that the team would close their doors after the April 7 game. No news was released about season tickets for the 2018-19 season, and so many players being traded for financial considerations rather than player-for-player or future considerations didn’t show confidence in a future for the team. When the news of the team’s folding was announced, Mallards owner Jordan Melville stated that he could no longer afford to keep the team after five years. Melville had been a partial owner of the Central Hockey League, and then in the last year of the CHL was the full owner of the league, which owned the team.
The Mallards were in some ways doomed from the start of the season; many things were out of the control of the players, and even out of the hands of head coach Phil Axtell. 2017-18 wasn’t the Mallards’ season, and it just happened to occur the year the owner decided to call it quits. It was more than just the on-ice performance that doomed the Mallards, however.
There just wasn’t enough advertising for the team. Radio ads were only aired the day of games and on select stations that were sponsoring the night – such as WXLP’s $2 Beer and Hot Dog Night every Friday or WLLR Country Night – and rarely at that. Sponsorships also were lacking, especially compared to the almost 100 that the Mallards’ sports neighbor, the QC River Bandits minor-league baseball team, have across the Mississippi River in Davenport.
Almost two months after the Mallards closed their doors, Quad City hockey returned with a new look. The Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) announced a new team, just 90 miles northwest of Peoria, Illinois. Looking back and saying what should have been done, and critiquing the dysfunctions of prior years, can only help the new owners as they navigate the world of minor league hockey ownership for the first time.
The new SPHL team’s name, logo, and general manager will be announced in a press conference at noon on Thursday, June 21st, as well as the formal introduction of head coach Dave Pszenyczny. Pszenyczny was announced as the inaugural head coach on June 8th.
The new owners seem intent on running the team differently than it had been in recent years, returning to the old school feel of hockey as being a family. The new owners are fans of Quad City hockey, local men who have brought their families to the TaxSlayer Center through its many iterations. They have a fighting chance to keep hockey in the community for a long time because they’re focused on the community.